The smartest person in the room

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Jed Lea-Henry hopes the Labor Party respects the public enough to elevate their most talented individual to their highest position.

To see Kevin Rudd pre-election 2007 was to see a rare political animal. Debating from Opposition, he was savage, eloquent and piercing. He was without doubt the most outwardly intelligent individual in Parliament. As Prime Minister, Rudd succumbed to moderation — a position that, rightly or wrongly, political analysts seem to think the Australian public desires. He tempered his sharpness in order to broaden his appeal just at a time when the Australian public was just starting to take notice.

His is an intelligence that has been largely absent in federal politics ever since. That was until this Friday when Rudd, just returned from Washington, announced he would challenge Julia Gillard as Prime Minister when the Labor caucus convenes on Monday.

In his speech, he was convincing and direct. In responding to the subsequent media onslaught, he was knowledgeable and astute. For the first time in years a politician in this country seemed Prime Ministerial. Kevin Rudd showed us what we for the most part had forgotten — that he is a remarkable politician.

In contrast, Julia Gillard’s response was simply unfathomable. After years of public frustration and  disapproval at the level of political debate (dominated by punch-lines and clichés), her response to Rudd’s soaring address was to introduce a new catchphrase, repeating throughout her address ‘I get things done’ as if such an assertion would fix any misconceptions the public has about her. Here it is not the condescension that should worry us; rather, it is how out of touch she is. She is simply an average politician — out of her depth in the highest attainable position this country has to offer.

Make no mistake, Kevin Rudd just shifted into a political gear that Gillard does not have.

Tony Abbott’s latest plunge into lowest common denominator politics has been to label the Gillard Government “the worst since Whitlam”. Now, it is often hard to agree with the leader of the Opposition on any substantive issue, but here he may just have a point. However, it is a claim that should be qualified by stating that it is ‘the worst government since Whitlam, coupled with the worst opposition’.

A failure to shine against an Abbott-led Opposition is a humiliating position for the Labor party. To have been fundamentally defeated by him defies words all together. The minute the Government’s message became fixated on the opposition’s negativity, alarm bells should have been going off. In essence, Gillard was saying ‘Yes, they are beating us hands down but we don’t like the way they are doing it’. This defeatist tone was taken up once again in her response to Rudd’s leadership challenge. She accused him of seeking to destabilise her Government’s tenure as far back as 2010:

"Kevin Rudd spoke about trust today but did not deny when challenged that he has spent time, when I was Prime Minister and he has been Foreign Minister, behind closed doors in secret conversations with people undermining the Government”.

The problems of the Gillard Government belong uniquely to the Gillard Government. In the event that Kevin Rudd (or Tony Abbott for that matter) have in any way succeeded in undermining her position, it can only be an indictment on herself. Gillard just does not seem to be a good enough politician to withstand such difficult situations, let alone pull off what would now have to be a great escape, and win the next election.

Kevin Rudd led the Labor Party out of 11 years in Opposition to win a landslide victory against what was a consummate politician in John Howard. Contrast this with Julia Gillard losing ground and failing to win a majority in 2010 against the most impractical, error prone, Liberal leader in memory. To be politically outmaneuvered by Tony Abbott should, on its own dis-merit, be the final nail in Julia Gillard’s political coffin. And in attempting to exonerate herself from this failure, she is expressing a ‘slave morality’ that we should not expect to see in out nations leaders.

Current public polling on preferred ALP leader has Kevin Rudd as high as 53 per cent and Julia Gillard as low as 26 per cent, with no national polling having her higher than 34 per cent. Julia Gillard is, therefore, banking on caucus support in the face of public dissatisfaction to retain her job. The Australian Labor Party, perceived to be out of touch with its members, cannot solve such problems by further ignoring public sentiment. Ministerial self-interest should not be a factor in such important decisions.

In affirming his support for Rudd’s challenge, Anthony Albanese acknowledged he was doing so despite Gillard still holding overwhelming support within caucus. Yet he qualified that by claiming there is a tendency in these situations to vote with the majority. There is nothing to be gained in these circumstances from voting with the losing side. Rudd and his supporters will be hoping that a critical mass of support can be gathered before the vote on Monday. Just enough of a momentum shift to convince MP’s that he may not lose. The feeling is that once the result becomes uncertain, then the numbers will flood to Kevin Rudd.

If the caucus on Monday morning defy public opinion and do not vote for Kevin Rudd, then the question is: what are they voting for? They will be choosing a leader who has languished in the polls for over year, a leader who seems incapable of producing any sort of political traction and, most importantly, a leader who seems destined to lose the next election.

Moreover, they will be accepting a future of instability — for no political party will be able tolerate such dismal polling numbers for an extended period of time. If she wins and her approval rating remains at its current levels, then the question must be: at what point does a third party candidate come forward to challenge? No major political party can afford to coast into a general election accepting defeat.

When caucus convenes, Kevin Rudd will be the smartest man in the room. Let us hope that the Australian Labor Party respects the public enough to elevate their most talented individual to their highest position.

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